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The American Navy’s Elite Flying Squad Is Obsessed with Porn

It's a cesspool of degradation, dick pics, and sexual harassment.
6.6.14

An internal US Navy investigation blames Capt. Gregory McWherter for encouraging sexual harassment and general lewdness among the Blue Angels, the Navy's iconic stunt pilot squad. Photo courtesy of the US Navy

When it comes to patriotic displays of American jingoism, it doesn’t get much more red, white, or blue than the Blue Angels. Formed after World War II to keep the public interested in the Navy’s aviation programs, the elite fighter jet squadron are essentially show ponies, existing for the sole purpose of pumping up the US military with flying acrobatics meant to remind audiences at NASCAR races and Fourth of July parades that their tax dollars still fund the world’s most expensive and aggressive fighting force.

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But a new internal report from the Navy has found that underneath the barrel rolls and national ego stroking, the Blue Angels are also emblematic of the darker traditions of the US military, typifying the pervasive harassment, homophobiamand over-the-top lewdness that continue to plague the armed forces amid a sexual assault epidemic.

“The command was rife with inappropriate humor and sexual commentary, chauvinistic behavior, homosexual slurs, and demonstrated a complete lack of professionalism internal to the Ready Room,” Adm. Harry B. Harris, commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, wrote in the report. “Through an exclusive and elitist ‘boys club’ mentality, many of the demonstration pilots established, fostered and perpetuated this hostile climate, marginalizing the support officers, the Chief Petty Officers, and the junior enlisted."

The 63-page report paints a picture of a squadron obsessed with sex and porn (and penis imagery in particular, it seems). Harris’s investigation found that, under the leadership of Captain Gregory McWherter, who served as commander of the unit during two stints between 2008 and 2012, the Blue Angels lost any sense of personal boundaries or workplace decency. Crew chiefs posted photos of naked women in their cockpits (for “motivation,” according to witnesses), shared dick pics and sex jokes in the unit’s online group chat, and videotaped babes in the crowd at their air shows for later viewing. During hazing rituals, the report claims, new members of the squad were sometimes forced to wear “foam penis hats and mechanical ‘dog humping’ hats.” (It’s unclear what exactly the latter entails.)

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At one point, according to the report, the squad drew a blue and gold penis on the roof of the Blue Angels’ training facility that was so enormous it could be seen from space, and subsequently Google Maps. So pervasive was the Blue Angels’ fascination with the human anatomy that even the pumpkins put out for Halloween were carved with pornographic stencils.

At first blush, the revelations don’t seem all that surprising, nor even particularly offensive. Distasteful, maybe, but these people enlisted in the Navy, not a monastery. In fact, it seems downright un-American to begrudge our fighter pilots their pinups –  an unfair rejection of a national military ritual that dates back to the Memphis Belle and the WWII bombers. So Blue Angels like to ogle cute girls in bikinis – is that really so bad?

Naked lady nose art on a B-24 Liberator, an American heavy bomber jet used in World War II. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Except all that smuttiness eventually, perhaps inevitably, led to real people – both male and female sailors in the Blue Angels – feeling sexually harassed and degraded. McWherter, Harris wrote, “witnessed, accepted, and encouraged behavior that, while juvenile and sophomoric in the beginning, ultimately and in the aggregate, became destructive, toxic, and hostile.” The report goes on to describe how officers posted a Facebook photo in the “Ready Room” of a female Blue Angel in a bikini (women can enlist in the Blue Angels unit, but there has never been a female pilot on the squad). Witnesses also described a party in which “newbies” tried to tape another female sailor to a chair. According to witnesses, when members of the Blue Angels tried to raise concerns about the climate of sexual harassment, they were usually criticised for going outside the chain of command or for putting “their own selfish needs above the ‘needs of the team.’”

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The findings of the investigation are another big blow to the Pentagon, which has struggled to dispel the military’s growing reputation as a cesspool of abuse and degradation. To make matters worse, the Blue Angels are a deeply mythologised symbol of the US Navy – a PR tool used to boost morale among the public and lure in new recruits with fancy fighter jets. "In a way it shows how oblivious much of the command is to sexual harassment," said Helen Benedict, a Columbia Journalism School professor and author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. Despite the heightened media scrutiny and Congressional pressure, she added, commanders “carry on anyway because they have a sense of immunity and because it's so much part of the military culture."

“It’s more of the same problem that pervades the military – the behavior of that commander is the behavior of many men in the military in many offices,” she said. “The pervasiveness of pornography, of homophobia, of sexual harassment – that's part of the culture and it has been for a very long time.”

As Benedict points out, the Blue Angels’ indiscretions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to workplace hostility and sexual abuse in the military. In recent months, the Pentagon has been racked with a series of high-profile sexual assault cases, including the court martial of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, who was accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate female officer over the course of their three-year affair. (Sinclair pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in March.) Last week, pretrial hearings began for Army Staff Sgt. Angel Sanchez, who is accused of sexually assaulting 12 female soldiers and of using his position as drill sergeant to threaten some of his alleged victims. And on Wednesday, female soldiers testified in the hearing of a Fort Hood sexual assault prevention officer accused of recruiting financially troubled women on the base into a prostitution ring.

There were 5,061 reported sexual assault cases in the military last year, according to a Pentagon study released at the end of April. That number is up 50 percent from 2012, but the military did not estimate how many sexual assaults occurred overall in 2013, so it’s difficult to know whether the problem is getting worse, or victims are getting more comfortable making reports. In 2012, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted, although just 3,374 were reported.

In the case of the Blue Angels, there are signs that the tide, however glacially, may be turning. On Tuesday, the Navy announced that McWherter had been found guilty of “fostering a hostile command climate, failing to stop obvious and repeated instances of sexual harassment, condoning widespread lewd practices within the squadron, and engaging in inappropriate and unprofessional discussions with his junior officers.” He was given a punitive letter of reprimand, usually a career-ender in the military.

“This would have hardly been noticed as anything unusual not very long ago,” said Benedict. "That this guy is being called on to the carpet for this, it’s a sign of the new attention that is being brought on the military, and of the light that is being shined on this issue. It shows that some of them are at least trying to do something about it.”